Sunday, June 5, 2011

single syllables

Today I enjoyed the singing of God's people in the church my Karen and I are attending during my sabbatical. Well, we enjoy this singing every Sunday. Today I had a fresh appreciation for it, with a little bit of The Anthologist rattling in the back of my ear:
Do you notice those one-syllable words? The Elizabethans really understood short words. Each one-syllable word becomes a heavy blunt chunk of butter that is melted and baked into the pound cake of the line. . . Gascoigne said that to write a delectable poem you must "thrust as few words of many syllables into your verse as may be." The more monosyllables, the better, he said.
When I read this earlier this weekend, I thought of hymns, old and new. But mostly new. I have to say that some of the new hymn writing I admire is flawed by using too many polysyllabic words. Good words; words with meaning and richness. But in the end, perhaps words that get in the way of our singing, that don't melt in our ears and tongues and hearts and souls.

Yes, I have to say that a certain personal favorite (here unnamed) gets hung up here. While another, Timothy Dudley-Smith, so often triumphs with single syllables. This morning we sang Bob Kauflin's "O Great God" and I think the only word of 3-syllables is "occupy;" by and large this very good little hymn passes the single-syllable test. One may also compare most classic hymns with (for example) some very fine hymns from the pen of the late James M. Boice. Great ideas, solid concepts, glorious themes. But, to paraphrase the emperor in "Amadeus" - "too many syllables."

And it makes me wonder: will this be a predictor of the long-term success/use of a hymn?

C. S. Lewis famously called hymns "third rate poetry set to fourth rate music." Don't go to Lewis for encouragement about church music. But I take issue with the great man. Hymn poetry is the most disciplined form I can imagine. And when it's good it is very, very good. (And to be fair, when it is bad, it is horrid.) This notion of the value of single syllable words just may be another aspect of my hymn selection matrix; I think we're on to something.

1 comment:

Chuck said...